No Longer Superior?

BY HANK REICHMAN

The University of Wisconsin-Superior announced this week that it will suspend 25 programs, including 9 majors, 15 minors and one graduate program, according to reports by the Duluth News-Tribune and Wisconsin Public Radio. Among the majors affected are sociology, theater, journalism and political science. The university has now suspended 40 programs since 2014. The announcement came as a surprise to most faculty members, who said they were unaware that their programs were even at risk.  Another 15 programs have been put “on warning.” Those departments will be required to develop plans to make changes to their curriculum, meet regional needs and be more “attractive for students,” according to a university spokesperson.

“We were not consulted.  We were just told that this is how it’s going to be, and I consider this process to be illegitimate,” said Eric Edwards, chair of the Social Inquiry Department.  “We need to talk about this in our faculty senate, in our academic affairs council.  These are the bodies who need to make this decision — not the administrators. The administrators don’t teach classes.  They’re not experts in our fields.”

“Half of the offerings in my department were cut without any discussion or notification,” said Brent Notbohm, a professor of film and video and chair of the Communicating Arts Department. “It’s left people demoralized and feeling like they didn’t have an opportunity to work with administrators to find pragmatic solutions.”

No faculty will be laid off as a result of the cuts, said Jackie Weissenburger, interim provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs, but some probably will end up teaching courses outside their area of expertise.  Programs were targeted for suspension based on low enrollment and poor completion rates, explained Weissenburger, citing the university’s desire to streamline its offerings in an effort to reduce dropouts and get more students to graduate in a timely fashion.

Under campus policies suspended programs are essentially in limbo once the remaining students graduate. A suspension lasts ten years until the program officially closes, and then the university decides whether to shut it down or reinvest.

UW-Superior suspended twenty programs three years ago as part of an effort to address a $4.5 million budget shortfall.  Since then, the university’s budget deficit has been reduced to $2.5 million.  However, the decision wasn’t made to save money, campus officials claimed.  Instead, administrators offered a singularly remarkable rationale for the move.  “Research shows that if you provide too many choices and too many options for students, it can get very overwhelming, which can result in them making misinformed decisions,” Jordan Milan, director of strategic communications, explained.  “This often happens with particularly first-generation students, which 46 percent of our student body is first-gen.”

“To me, that means that they think we’re all stupid,” responded Janet Branley, a senior studying sociology and gender studies.  “They might as well have just come right out and said it: ‘These people aren’t intelligent enough to make logical choices from what we have to offer; so here, we’re going to narrow your choices and make your decision for you.'”

Matthew McCoshen, a junior double-majoring in political science and history, added, “More options is a better thing for us to discover what we want to do in the future, because college is the place where we’re supposed to explore these kind of things and learn what we want to do and what we want to be.”

Administrators claimed that the suspensions were the result of a several years-old program prioritization process and the work of a summer task force known as Guided Pathways, in which faculty members participated. In an open letter to the campus, Edwards, the Social Inquiry chair, responded:

I would like to apologize to my fellow faculty, to university and academic staff, and, most of all, to the students of UWS, past, present, and future. I feel that, in my role as a sociologist and as a department chair, I have not been as vigilant as I should have been.

This summer, as I participated in the Guided Pathways Task Force, I listened to the Provost’s idea that first-generation college students are confused by too many academic options, and that we should eliminate some low-enrolling minors (not majors, but minors) in order to streamline the process for them. I thought that it was a ludicrous argument – so ludicrous, in fact, that I did not take it seriously. I thought that, in fall, people would see this recommendation, laugh it off, and forget about it.

I have come to realize, though, that not taking this idea seriously is the single biggest mistake I have ever made as an employee of UWS.

If you ask actual students who attend UWS what problems they face (and I have done this every time I teach my sociology of education course), they will tell you things like the following: there is no daycare on campus; I have to work two jobs to afford tuition; there aren’t enough scholarships; I cannot afford my books this semester. I think you get where I’m going with this. At no point in any discussion I have ever had with a student (first-generation or otherwise) have any of them hinted that having too many options was a problem. . . .

. . .  to my knowledge, no one from administration talked to our students about this. If they had, they would have discovered that not a single one of them had a concern about too many options. This, of course, is precisely why admin didn’t discuss this with our students.

Let’s not pretend any longer. This suspension/”warning” of majors and minors is not about helping our first-generation students who are too confused to take the right classes. This is about transforming the university. It is a declaration to our students that they don’t deserve a first-class education. . . .

. . .  Administration is stating that this proposal will not lead to anyone losing their jobs, but they also state (and hope) that our work environment will become so abhorrent to us that we’ll choose to leave, then they won’t replace people who go. In other words, it’s an indirect way to eliminate faculty positions. Well, congratulations! Your efforts are going to pay off!

I would like to call for the Chancellor, Interim Provost, and any other administrator who was involved in crafting this proposal to do one of two things: either completely withdraw this proposal or resign immediately. If their solution to a non-existent problem is to destroy liberal arts on this campus, we need to prevent them from making similar reckless decisions in the future. They’ve proven themselves irresponsible with the power they currently wield.

I also urge students, faculty, staff, and alumni to reject this proposal and the manner in which it was presented to us. These are curricular matters that should be decided by us, the faculty, not administrators. And it is not something that administrators should present to us as an accomplished fact. Administrators gave us no warning, and they have refused to negotiate with the faculty.

Chancellor Wachter, Interim Provost Weissenburger: this is your legacy. We will always remember what you did on Halloween morning of 2017. I hope you are happy that you have played a prime part in the national trend toward dismantling higher education.

The program suspensions come in the context of a series of actions by Governor Scott Walker, the Wisconsin state legislature, and the University of Wisconsin system board of regents that a joint statement issued last month by the AAUP and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) called “a concerted attack on the university as a public good and on the university’s role in fostering democratic participation.”  In March 2016, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents adopted a tenure policy that allows administrators to dismiss tenured faculty members in the wake of a post-tenure review without a faculty hearing.  Hence, while the suspensions have not as yet been accompanied by faculty dismissals or layoffs, it may be easier for the administration to take such actions now than it would have been just a few years ago.  The AAUP and faculty members throughout Wisconsin and the country will, therefore, closely monitor events at UW-Superior.

Students at UW-Superior have initiated a petition opposing the program suspensions, which as of this writing has attracted over 4,000 signatures.  It may be found here.  The AAUP is also collecting signatures on a petition, to be delivered to the Wisconsin Board of Regents, calling on the board “to cease its attacks on the institutions it stewards; to recognize tenure, faculty governance, due process, and academic freedom as foundational to higher education; to support and encourage free speech for faculty and students; and to govern the system’s institutions for the common good of the people of Wisconsin.”  It may be found here.

Here is the list of suspended programs, as reported by the Duluth News-Tribune:

Major Programs

Broad Field Science (major)

Broad Field Science (Teaching) (major)

Chemistry: Forensic (concentration)

Communicating Arts: Journalism (track)

Communicating Arts: Media Studies (track)

Political Science (major)

Sociology (major)

Theatre (major)

Visual Arts: Art History (concentration)

Graduate Program

Masters in Art Therapy

Minors

Computer Science

Computer Science (Teaching)

Earth Science

Geography

Geography (Teaching)

Global Studies

Health and Human Performance

History (Teaching)

Journalism

Legal Studies

Media Communication

Photography

Physics

Physics (Teaching)

Psychology (Teaching)


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One thought on “No Longer Superior?

  1. There are a number of interesting analogies that need consideration. First, regardless of the anecdotal responses of students as to options for their programs, the enrollment data appears to show what the administration finds, students tend to selectively limit.

    Interestingly there is an analogy in the automotive industry where, at one time, General Motors could combine all options and produce an individual vehicle for every driver in the United States. The Japanese figured out that a quality vehicle with basic standardization of option would meet market needs.

    There is a similar phenomenon in the pub/perish world where publishers know where most “downloads”, a measure of their profitability, occur. This leads to establishing which journals and even focus are being influenced. The pub/perish and rise of Open Access (pay to play) is now picking up on these issues as the rise of electronic distribution reduces the cost for journal proliferation. One must realize that even some of the highly ranked publishers are not eleemosynary non-profits.

    As far as a basic HEI degree is concerned, academia is schizophrenic. This is complicated by the rise of a variety of paths at the secondary level to obtain required credits as well as numerous pathways to demonstrate “competencies” at low to no cost to the students and which shape the pursuit of such certification. Then too, there is the path beyond the basic degree today as opposed to the changing demands and options from the past.

    While one can express legitimate concern about the options offered within the HEI’s, when one looks at the larger picture, perhaps, as suggested in the letter by Edwards, one might evoke the concept of “theory induced blindness” which, in this case seems to assume that the Ivory Tower stands alone and inviolate when one considers that this institution is now imbedded in a much larger world which renders the walls permeable and no longer retaining the ability to chart, singularly, its own path.

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